Category Archives: Camellia diary


The making of gardens, old and new

I came over to my office first thing this morning, prepared to put in a solid hour or two on a tax return which has a deadline of Wednesday. GST, which is our sales tax. It is my six monthly ordeal by boredom. But the early light was so appealing that I grabbed my camera and was diverted to way more interesting thoughts.

Echinacea, eryngium and miscanthus in the new grass garden 

I only started planting the new grass garden maybe ten months ago but over summer it has filled in and it is looking remarkably well established. Not ready for the grand photos of the whole scene yet but it is coming together and bringing me great delight. Reassuringly, given the amount of effort that is going into it, I am now confident it will work.


The central sunken garden is to remain

The decision to strip out the central borders of the rose garden was more recent. It was Tony Murrell, friend, Auckland-based designer and garden media personality, who suggested last October that I strip out these beds and I have now reached the point where I am fairly confident he was right. The central sunken garden will remain as the landscape feature and I have fully renovated it. We have lost more treasures than we have kept in this highly detailed area but the pleione orchids have thrived, to the point where I thought I should rename it the pleione garden. Mark’s father dug this area by hand back in the early 1950s and lined it in granite and marble.

The outer concrete edging in the centre is to go and the area will be grassed around the remaining shrubs

The feature dwarf camellias, of which there are eight, and two dwarf maples, are to stay. They give some botanical interest, form and character but the outer edging in concrete will be lifted and removed and the area grassed. It should be a crisper look to an area that I have never enjoyed gardening. I knew I had to do something because I averted my eyes from it for the better part of last year and possibly much of the year before. I have never enjoyed working in this area.

I now realise if there is no pleasure in gardening a certain area, then something is wrong with either the concept or the execution. It is not for want of trying. This central area has had at least three major makeovers done on it in the last twenty years and none of them have really worked. This fourth one is the most radical. Gut most of it out and make it simpler and visually stronger.

We describe the new caterpillar garden as a blank slate but we are still working around a beautiful Podocarpus henkelli and a grapefruit tree. We never get totally blank slates here.

Gutting a garden is a major task unless you are willing to scrap all the plants, which is not our way at all. No. I must lift and relocate most of them and that is a detailed job. A few went to the grass garden – irises, liriope and eryngiums, mostly. Most are going to another new garden which we loosely refer to as the caterpillar garden. This is because Mark has laid out the structure in dainty little Camellia microphylla (just coming into flower now) in the form of the basket fungus, so based on pentagons. After it has flowered for this season – and it has a very short flowering season – he plans to start clipping it into the shape of an undulating caterpillar. For this idea, we acknowledge leading UK designer, Tom Stuart-Smith.

Camellia microphylla for the caterpillar hedging. And colouring in some spaces with blue asters

The design gives separate compartments for planting, somewhat like in-fill housing. We want it simple, eyecatching and easy(ish) to maintain. Mark’s vision is of the central enclosures rising up above the caterpillar shapes in blues and whites and the outside blocks in shades of blue, lavender, lilac, white and a bit of pink but not too much. If you are trying to envisage the scene, the caterpillar garden alone is about 25 metres long and 8 metres at its widest with 5 central enclosures and about 15 outer spaces to be coloured in. It is not for the faint-hearted gardener and we could never afford to do it if we had to buy the plants in. But the gutting of the old rose garden area has supplied many which I have lifted, divided and replanted into compost in the freshly dug new garden area. These are larger block plantings in a far more modern style than we have in the older areas of the garden.

The challenge is to integrate a more modern area into the existing garden so the transition is seamless, rather than disjointed or jarring. It helps that this is a sunny, flat, open area that is by its very physical attributes different to the rest of the garden.

Morning light shining behind the first grape leaf to colour for autumn

We are not into instant gardening. These things take time and we will not be doing the big reveal for another year or two yet. But it is keeping me busy because I am doing most of the planting. I am leaving Mark to worry about the structural elements that still have to go into this area and the small matter of moving the propagation houses somewhere else entirely. It should happen. It just won’t happen in the next few weeks or even months.

I was born impatient but time, experience and age have taught me patience and how to take a longer term view. Mark describes this new garden development as ‘our last lunge’. We want to get it right before we settle down into our dotage. There is no great rush and there is much delight and satisfaction in the process. And really, for us, gardening is an ongoing process, not an end product.

Camellia Diary 5, August 29, 2010

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Dainty little camellia species minutiflora

Dainty little camellia species minutiflora

The reticulatas, in this case Glowing Embers, are good value in the garden, despite the ravages of petal blight

The reticulatas, in this case Glowing Embers, are good value in the garden, despite the ravages of petal blight

In years gone by (that is, in days pre-dating rampant camellia petal blight), now would be the time when we would be enjoying mass flowering in the japonica camellias. That has gone. But the reticulata camellias have come into their own. Because most are red, petal blight does not show up as badly and with such huge blooms, the spoiled flowers fall cleanly to the ground. And they still mass flower for us, even if we measure their flowering season in weeks, not months. Reticulatas have become hard to source these days. Few grow on their own roots so they have to be grafted and in this day and age, that is a skill which has all but died out. Most buyers can’t tell the difference between a grafted plant and one which can be mass produced with little skill and great ease so they don’t understand why the former plant should be so much more expensive than the latter. It is a good argument for home gardeners learning the more advanced skills needed to produce these plants at home for themselves. Most of the retics in our garden were grafted by Mark’s father Felix, back in the 1950s and 60s – now they are small trees.

Spring Festival - pretty as a picture

Spring Festival - pretty as a picture

The other group of plants which continue to last the distance in the garden are the miniature flowered varieties, both hybrids and species. Any miniature flowered variety worth its salt should have masses of buds and flowers so it doesn’t matter if petal blight attacks after two or three days because there are so many fresh buds opening and individual blooms rarely last longer than a couple of days. Spring Festival is an American hybrid registered 35 years ago but I wish it had been one of ours because it is as pretty as a picture – a particularly pretty shade of pink with an attractive flower form, plenty of flowers, good pillar growth and a pleasing glaucous cast to the leaf colour. Camellias are a bit like roses – far too many are named and registered and don’t stand the test of time but a few last the distance.
It is also clear that in terms of garden appearance, red camellias are a better bet than pale ones when it comes to petal blight. The reds do not look anywhere near as unsightly in the early stages when the blooms are showing speckles of brown.
Camellia minutiflora is just starting to open. It is a gem of a species with very dark foliage and dainty flowers. We have put a hold on most of the plants in the nursery as we ponder its suitability for formal hedging.

Camellia Diary 4, July 27, 2010

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The ugly devastation of camellia petal blight

I suspect there has been a bit of a conspiracy of silence about the devastating impact of camellia petal blight in this country. Between camellia enthusiasts, growers and retailers, nobody has really wanted to own up publicly to the fact that it must irrevocably change the types of camellias we plant and they way we use them. The sad thing is that when it was first discovered in Wellington over a decade ago, it was only in two or three locations and if there had been a will, it could probably have been eradicated.

Camellia petal blight at the top, showing the distinctive white ring, merely botrytis on the lower flower

Camellias used to be the second biggest plant seller in this country (roses were number one) and it was the wide use of them in relatively large numbers which aided the spread of petal blight. It is a fungal spore which can travel, apparently, up to 5km on the winds as well as being transferred by infected blooms and soils. The overseas advice to rake up and burn all infected blooms to reduce the spread was simply impractical in a country where they are heavily used in informal hedges and windbreaks. Camellias are seen as utility garden plants in New Zealand and not as show blooms so people were never going to get out with the leaf rake to clear up every single affected bloom.

Botrytis shows up as a darker brown on the bush and has been with us for a long time but nowhere near as devastating as the more recently arrived petal blight.

Botrytis shows up as a darker brown on the bush and has been with us for a long time but nowhere near as devastating as the more recently arrived petal blight.

So petal blight has turned the annual flowering into something of a disappointment, particularly on the japonicas where mass display is a thing of the past. We have always had botrytis here, which can turn blooms to sludge on the bush but the combination of botrytis and petal blight has dramatically reduced the display. Botrytis shows up as darker brown markings whereas petal blight is a paler discolouration. When you turn the blooms over and flick off the calyx (the little hat that holds the petals together on the back), petal blight is revealed as a powdery white ring. Botrytis does not show that white ring. As the affected blooms reach the ground, they give rise to the mushrooms which form at the base of affected plants – these release the spore and the petal blight continues its self contained cycle. Alas the self grooming characteristic (where camellias drop spoiled blooms) so determinedly sought by Les Jury in his days of breeding, no longer apply. Blight means the blooms hang on way past spoiling.

Mark put camellia breeding on the backburner and is only now returning to it as the picture becomes clearer on the directions to pursue. They are still a wonderful and versatile plant but we need to explore different ways to use them in the garden.

Camellia Diary number 3: July 3, 2010

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July may see days getting a little longer but it also tends to herald the worst of our winter weather. However as chill, grey days can be interspersed, as today and indeed, last weekend, with positively mild days when it is possible to garden comfortably and shed layers of clothing, the camellias flower on undeterred.

The sasanquas are drawing to the end of their season but Elfin Rose, who opened her first blooms at the very end of March, is still a significant patch of lolly pink and dark forest green. Three months of flowering is better than most of the other sasanquas manage. Silver Dollar also just gets better every year and is excelling with an extended flowering season. We think Silver Dollar, being lower and slower growing, would make a good hedge. Alas were it not for the wonderful shape and maturity of Mine No Yuki, it would have had the chop by now. It does not justify its place here as a flowering plant where the pristine white blooms turn to brown mush in our rains.

The ever faithful Camellia Waterlily

The japonicas are just starting – the first flowers came on good old Waterlily, one of the first camellias named here by Felix. The original plant is pretty sizeable now – maybe six metres – but the early flowers are as lovely as ever. Half sister, Softly (another saluenensis hybrid) is also showing plenty of open bloom. In the class of pale formals, Softly shows good weather resistance. We went on a magnolia tour in northern Italy a few years ago and the timing coincided with the peak of their japonica display, and what a display. We soon worked out that camellias in that climate mass flower over a much shorter period of time. Here, ours flower for much longer but without that oomph all at once.

The lovely species yuhsienensis

Compact C. drupifera, planted here with burgundy aeonium and cordyline

In the species, C.gauchowensis is looking lovely but the star this week is the compact C.drupifera. Or maybe C.yuhsienensis. It is hard to decide – all look lovely with pristine white blooms. Yuhsienensis takes a bit of grooming to stay looking its best but it is such a lovely camellia. We have a row of about 50 plants in our open ground area which we are still debating about using as a hedge. Puniceiflora continues flowering – puny flowers but still with a simple, small charm.

Alas I found the disconcerting sight of the first instance of the dreaded camellia petal blight at the very beginning of June (about June 2, from memory). It just seems to get earlier every year but it is not yet showing up badly on garden plants so I will return to the topic later when it is no longer possible to ignore it.

Camellia Diary – the second entry. May 13, 2010

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Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose - a personal favourite

Camellia sasanqua Elfin Rose - a personal favourite

Now that we are well and truly into autumn, it is the sasanquas which are the dominant flowering shrub in the garden. What they sometimes lack in flower substance and form, they more than make up in mass display. And in a country where camellias are used extensively as garden plants and shelter, we have been hit hard by the advent of the dreaded camellia petal blight from mid season onwards. The sasanquas flower early enough to miss the onset of that scourge.

Crimson King - a graceful plant with a light canopy

My personal picks are Elfin Rose and Crimson King which just keep on flowering but there are a host of others which are very charming in their own right – Bettie Patricia, Gay Border, Mine No Yuki, Yoimachi (a sasanqua hybrid), Bonanza and Silver Dollar to name but a few.

Many of our plants are decades old, three to four metres high and just as wide. Of all the different groups of camellias, sasanquas particularly lend themselves to clipping and shaping, turning into either layered forms or light canopies often growing from multiple trunks. There is a grace to be found in their natural growth habit and form which is not always present in the more sturdy japonicas.

In the species, we couldn’t help but notice that brevistyla was brief indeed in flower. While individual blooms continue to open, the mass flowering can only have lasted ten days. The closely related microphylla, however, has continued to put on a really good show for nigh on a month now. I was writing a piece on the earliest flowering camellias for a national gardening magazine and friend and president of the NZ Camellia Society, Tony Barnes, mentioned C.granthamiana as one of the earliest to open.

We are pretty sure it is C. gauchowensis

We have it somewhere in the garden but we appear to have mislaid it – which is to say that Mark can’t remember where he planted it and neither of us have come across it yet. We have what we think is C.gauchowensis in flower. It is another pristine white single bloom as many of the species are , on a narrow, columnar bush. Unfortunately it does get easily weather-marked. Few of the species are inherently spectacular when compared to the modern cultivars on offer but they have a quiet charm which we enjoy.